Misty Mueller is heading West from New Mexico when she drives off a Colorado mountain road into a ravine and dies. Her action foreshadows many other acts of aimless escape in Antonya Nelson’s new novel, Bound . When Misty’s now-orphaned daughter, Cattie, finds out about her mother’s death, she runs away from the East Coast boarding school she hates and camps out in a house in Vermont owned by her classmate’s stepsister. There she meets a soldier named Randall, who is AWOL from the Army. When Cattie decides to head West to return to the house she shared with her mother, Randall goes with her, though neither knows what awaits them. In the meantime, Catherine, Misty’s estranged best friend from high school, receives a letter revealing that she is Cattie’s legal guardian. Catherine has lived in Wichita, Kansas, her whole life; she even sleeps in the same bed she had as a teenager. But unbeknownst to Catherine, her life is not as stable as she believes; her much older husband, Oliver, is contemplating running out on her.
Like many of her characters, Nelson seems to have embarked on a journey (of novel writing, in her case) without great consideration for destination. Though there is some resolution over the course of the novel-Cattie finds a home, at least temporarily-the emotional arc is as flat as the book’s Midwestern setting. Cattie is as lost and isolated in the end of the novel as she is in the beginning. Catherine is practically as unfulfilled and clueless. Oliver’s only progression is toward an increasing awareness of his own old age. Other plotlines-like that of the soldier, Randall, and a mysterious sideplot about a serial killer on the loose in Wichita-go nowhere at all.
It’s hard to criticize Bound too thoroughly, though, without noting that Nelson is a remarkable writer. Narrative shortcomings aside, this is a wonderful collection of characters, deftly drawn and expertly unveiled. Cattie’s situation is tragic, but Nelson resists the urge toward pathos; instead, and far more rewardingly, she reveals Cattie’s experience of her mother’s death in the slow, complicated, and often backward way that grief can unfold. If anything grows over the course of this novel, it is our understanding of the relationship between Misty, the teenage burnout redeemed through single motherhood, and Cattie, the socially isolated daughter in danger of becoming her mother. What seems cold and dysfunctional at first is revealed, through Cattie’s memories and thoughts, to be a deeply loving relationship, a union of two outcast souls, uniquely suited for one another.